How Chicago Became
the Gateway to the West
A review of Cronon’s Nature's Metropolis
My review of an essential book for anyone interested in Illinois history, economics, and agriculture. (I also reviewed it for Illinois Times here, which borrows heavily from this piece.) Like so many of the books CE reviewed for its businessperson readers, this one was not a career self-help manual—astonishing.
Reviewed: Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. W. W. Norton & Company, 1991
In the last century, Chicago astonished the world and in the process helped remake it. The story of the city's growth from outpost to industrial colossus is well known, if not always understood. A generation of capitalists obliterated distance, reordered whole ecosystems, and even reorganized time itself to suit the purposes of a new mass market. High-school history to the contrary, it was not hogs and wheat and steel that made Chicago great but new ideas about how to make, move, and market these commodities.
This American saga has not yet found its Homer, but it now may have its Herodotus in Yale professor William Cronon, author of Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. In it, Cronon attempts a synthesis of the environmental and the economic approach to history. He explains how, in the latter half of the last century, the market transformed "first nature"—the unspoiled virgin countryside of the 19th century West—into "second nature"—a countryside that has been mowed, sprayed, subdivided, and fenced into an essentially industrial landscape.
"A sizable share of the new city's wealth was the wealth of nature stolen, consumed, and converted to human ends," Cronon writes. He quotes an old lumberman grown rich from raiding the woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota who complained that Americans "assume that they have made themselves great, whereas their greatness has been in large measure thrust upon them by a bountiful providence."
Chicago didn't just plunder the countryside, however; it transformed it. Cronon explains that the relationship between city and country is reciprocal, at least in economic terms. In the process of taking wealth from its rural hinterland, Chicago made new wealth possible by providing a market for what could be harvested there.
The familiar resentment expressed toward Chicago by its small-town Midwestern neighbors is incited by this highly unequal partnership. Downstaters resented (often with reason) the control that the city's bankers and grain traders and butchers held over the markets for their produce, but perhaps overlooked the fact that without those markets much of Downstate would be a backwater—as, sadly, much of it is becoming again today.
The faster that Chicago grew, the faster it created new rail lines, communication systems, and capital. But while the forests have been felled, the steel mills largely are quiet, and the working docks of the Chicago River have been converted into night clubs, today's Chicago is not wholly finished with the economic exploitation of its countryside. The subdivision and sale of its now redundant agricultural hinterland as housing sites represents that hinterland's transformation into what future historians may come to describe as a third nature.
The city boasted no natural advantages that were substantially richer than those of a dozen other cities that pretended to the title of Gateway City to the West; its physical setting was swampy, its river port no better than adequate, and the only mineral wealth of note was rock to build with.
True, Chicago's location was an early advantage. But a bevy of innovations quickly rendered place less and less relevant to the economy of cities. (O'Hare Airport may be the last of Chicago's "biggest" and "busiest" that owes itself to geographic location.) For example, refrigeration made it possible for Chicago meat packers to build a supply system that extended across half a continent.
"Geography no longer mattered very much except as a problem in management," Cronon writes. "The cattle might still graze amid forgotten buffalo wallows in central Montana, and the hogs might still devour their feedlot corn in Iowa, but from the corporate point of view they could just as well have been anywhere else."
The ecology of money was as vital as the ecology of nature to Chicago's expansion, according to Cronon. The reason Chicago became the Gateway City to the West instead of, say, St. Louis, was because Chicago stood at the terminus of a chain of canals and railroads (and business relationships) that connected it to the banks and boardrooms of New York and Europe. St. Louis meanwhile—though better placed in other respects—was dependent on its crucial early years on a river that led south to New Orleans and the southern hemisphere.
Nature's Metropolis has won universal praise as a minor masterpiece of its kind. Cronon reminds us that history used to be the province of writers as well as statisticians. (Chicago's meat packers, he notes in a typical flourish, "harvested the winter's cold and suspended the wheel of the seasons [in] the chilled factories by the stockyards.") The author makes even arcana such as credit flows intelligible and his account of how the grain trade was transformed when corn and wheat ceased to be bought and sold in sacks is a marvel of exposition.
There is a temptation to read such a history as a cookbook, looking for recipes for economic development. Cronon offers no simple suggestions, but even an alderman could draw some parallels useful for policy. Increasingly, the commodities that now make up the city's trade are unnatural resources—money, ideas, services that can be performed almost anywhere; this most remarkable of frontier cities now functions in a world in which every place is its frontier. (There is no reason for the Japanese to send their money to Schaumburg to buy cellular phones, the way New York once sent its money to Chicago to buy beef, except that Schaumburg houses the smart people who know how to design them.)
The pine woods and prairies of tomorrow's Chicago are its own neighborhoods. The question is whether today’s city is smart enough to harvest the brains and ambition of its own people. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.